15 Minutes: General Curtis Lemay And The Countdown To Nuclear Annihilation

By L. Douglas Keeney

15 Minutes: General Curtis Lemay And The Countdown To Nuclear AnnihilationIn the midst of a new era of nuclear worry (Iran, North Korea, suitcase bombs), the Cold War appears ever more surreal in memory, its vast weaponry (enough nukes to kill all humankind many times over) and Dr. Strangelove vocabulary (“mutually assured destruction” a.k.a. MAD) making it seem like a lunatic’s nightmare. And therein lies the virtue of Keeney’s marvellous chronological account: it gives the Cold War a real history, a step-by-step sequence of events caused by human decisions. The logic of the Cold War was cold indeed, but irrational it was not.

Overkill? Not in the opinion of SAC, the U.S. Strategic Air Command, acutely aware of the U.S.S.R.’s ever-evolving strike capacity and defences. By the mid-1960s SAC believed it needed every one of its 34,000 warheads to be sure of accomplishing its two-pronged mission: to destroy the Soviet Union as a functioning state if called upon, and equally important, convincing the Soviets that it did possess that capacity. But quantity paled beside speed of response as an urgent need. Gen. Curtis LeMay, SAC’s true founding commander, found himself with a 12-hour response force, no longer adequate after the U.S.S.R. went nuclear in 1949, and developed long-range bombers and missiles of its own. The race was on to gain America’s deterrent force 15 clear minutes to get aloft, 15 minutes for whoever was still alive in the chain of command to make momentous decisions.

That meant constant drills and tests (SAC airmen scored 100 per cent or they were rotated out), constant airborne alert (SAC had nine bombers in the air every minute for almost 30 years), constant close calls and inevitable accidents. Planes crashed, crewmen died, bombs exploded (although not their fissile material)—including one in the St. Lawrence River near St. Alexandre-de-Kamouraska in 1950—and bombs (or their uranium cores) were lost, including one core that still lies sunk in marshy ground near Goldsboro, N.C. But by design, luck or the grace of God, it all held together. A year after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, so too did SAC.

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